“Are you human beings?” Order and knowledge construction through questioning in primary classroom interaction

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<ul><li><p>Linguistics and Education 17 (2006) 313346</p><p>Are you human beings? Order and knowledgeconstruction through questioning in primary</p><p>classroom interactionPiera Margutti </p><p>University for Foreigners Perugia, Department of Language Sciences, Italy</p><p>Abstract</p><p>This article examines how question-answer sequences are constructed in primary school instructionalactivities. The interaction between teacher and students in two 3rd-year groups is analyzed using aconversation-analytic approach. Four questioning patterns yes-no, alternative, wh-questions, and a non-interrogative format very frequently used in this setting which I call the Eliciting Completion Device (ECD) teachers use to address the class as a whole are examined in relation to their sequential uptakes: in-unisonanswers and bids to answer. The analysis shows that students recognize the conventions of question construc-tion as methodical practices used by teachers to convey expectations as to whether the answer is accessibleto students. Choral responses are produced when the question is constructed as eliciting information whichis obviously known to students, while bids to answer are deployed when the answer is less transparent. Thefindings reveal that the practices used to construct collectively assembled knowledge are closely connectedto the organization of the classroom social order. 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.</p><p>Keywords: Questions; Classroom interaction; Instructional sequences; Preference; Audience participation</p><p>1. Introduction</p><p>Imparting knowledge to a new generation of learners in an institutional setting is primarily aninteractional activity, though the way in which participants construct and manage interaction is amatter not to be taken for granted. As studies on cultural variations in teaching and ethnographicresearch on educational practices have shown, in many societies instructional activities are imple-mented through different ways of organizing interaction (Cazden, 1986; Heath, 1983; Mercer,</p><p> Correspondence address: Universita` per Stranieri di Perugia, Piazza Fortebraccio, 4. I-06122 Perugia, Italy.Tel.: +39 051 605613.</p><p>E-mail address: pimargy@yahoo.it.</p><p>0898-5898/$ see front matter 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.linged.2006.12.002</p></li><li><p>314 P. Margutti / Linguistics and Education 17 (2006) 313346</p><p>1995; Ochs, 1982; Ochs &amp; Schieffelin, 1983; Philips, 1972, 1983; Rogoff, 1990; Schultz, Florio,&amp; Erickson, 1982). For instance, in many communities adults guide the construction of knowl-edge primarily through providing opportunities for observation and imitation of instructors/elders,while in other cultures, as in our Western societies, talking to pupils, and furthermore askingquestions, seem to be the main instructional practices employed in institutional education settings.</p><p>It goes without saying that classroom interaction involves a number of activities through whichteaching and learning tasks can be accomplished without asking questions, and some require notalking at all. For instance, teachers and students tell stories to each other, read poetry, stories ortales, solve problems, and write essays. All of these pedagogic endeavors involve, at a certainstage, particular oral activities: the statement of ideas and concepts, the organization of knowledge,the development of abilities and competences. Questions and answers are the most prevalentinstructional tools in a long standing pedagogic tradition in which the centrality of questionsin teaching is widely recognized (Cazden, 1986; French &amp; MacLure, 1981; Galton, Hargreaves,Comber, Wall, &amp; Pell, 1999; Levinson, 1992; McHoul, 1978; Mehan, 1979; Mercer, 1995; Nassaji&amp; Wells, 2000; Nystrand, Wu, Gamoran, Zeiser, &amp; Long, 2003; Sinclair &amp; Coulthard, 1975;Wilkinson, 1982) and which is claimed, by some, to have come down all the way from Socrates.</p><p>One of the main institutional aims that teachers and students achieve through interaction isthat of imparting and gaining new knowledge. This often involves, as a first step, a collectiveassembling of known information. Indeed, teachers use a range of questioning devices to elicitfrom students notions they already possess: that is, they prompt displays of knowledge. Thesenotions then serve as the foundation upon which new information and competences are built. Forthis purpose, teachers have a wide range of interactional resources and practices at their disposal.For example, by leaving the last word in a sentence to be completed by the students, a teacherclearly relies on previous knowledge possessed by the students and invites their collaborativecompletion, as shown in fragment 1 below:</p><p>By withholding the production of the last word, highlighted also by a substantial period ofsilence in line 3, the teacher invites the students to display their knowledge of the unspoken itemby supplying it in the empty slot.</p></li><li><p>P. Margutti / Linguistics and Education 17 (2006) 313346 315</p><p>Teachers draw on a variety of resources in designing questioning. Their goal in each case is toelicit a certain type of answer, given by students in a certain manner and located in a particularplace in the interaction. In the excerpt above, for example, before the withholding of the turns lastitem and the one-second gap in line 3, the teacher produces a cluster of prosodic features, includingrising intonation, emphasis, and pitch variations. In this way, the teacher provides students withthe opportunity to understand what is left unspoken and thus, to display their knowledge anddemonstrate that they are so attuned to the talk underway that they can complete the teachersunfinished turn. This practice, which I analyze in this paper and call the Eliciting CompletionDevice (ECD), is only one of the methods employed by teachers when designing questioningturns.1</p><p>Classrooms are multi-party settings. Teachers face a large audience and must be capable ofcontrolling and organizing students participation so that pedagogical activities are accessibleto all. Therefore, the construction of shared knowledge interlocks with the organization of theclassroom social order (McHoul, 1978; Mehan, 1979). Through patterns of questioning the teachercontrols the students verbal and non-verbal participation, determining who speaks, when andhow. At times the teacher aims to elicit a collective response from the whole class, while onother occasions the question is constructed to address only one particular student. In other words,the way in which a question gets shaped has important consequences for the social order of theclassroom, in terms of how the teacher keeps the students focused on the activities and controlsthe order and format of speaking turns. Thus, it emerges that the activity of building knowledgehas indissoluble ties with that of keeping and maintaining order in the classroom.</p><p>The focus in this article is on questions that are not addressed to a single student (pre-allocated).The main interest is on how differences in the construction of this type of questions relate to theformat of the answers: either choral and individual responses. Through the investigation of theways in which teachers construct questioning turns and the shape of their sequential uptakes, thispaper aims to explicate the relationship between the construction of shared knowledge and themaintenance of the social order in the classroom. Before exploring the details of these questioningformats and their outcomes, some preliminary considerations on the categorization of addressedand non-addressed questions are necessary.</p><p>1.1. Addressed and non-addressed questions and their outcomes</p><p>One immediately visible feature of the construction of questions, which has consequencesfor the way in which teacher/student interaction is organized, is the presence or absence in thequestioning turn of addressing terms. Naming one student when constructing a question is oneway to deal with the problem of selecting who shall answer, as in fragment 2 below:</p><p>1 A similar practice has been described in Koshik (2002). According to Koshik, teachers use Designedly Incom-plete Utterances (DIU) in 1-on-1, second-language writing conferences to elicit knowledge displays in error correctionsequences. These are described as incomplete turn constructional units which prompts the students to complete the turnand, thus, to self-correct. The practice is very similar to what I call here Eliciting Completion Device (ECD). However,considering the different setting (multiparty) in which the practice is used, the distinctive features in terms of turn designand prosody, and the types of action it is being used to do in primary school interaction, I have decided to describe it as adifferent, although undoubtedly related, practice. One example of this practice has been described also in Lerner (1995:11617).</p></li><li><p>316 P. Margutti / Linguistics and Education 17 (2006) 313346</p><p>The student named in line 1 answers directly in line 3. The teacher then assesses the answerin the following line.</p><p>However, things are not always so neat and clear. For instance, the question in line 3 in thefragment below, although clearly addressed to Janin, produces a choral uptake.</p><p>As shown in the transcript, here the selected student does not answer immediately. Possiblereasons for the delay can be the following: (i) Janin is busy writing when the teacher addresses thequestion to her; (ii) the question follows a session of talk in which students have been allowed togive their individual answers without any selection procedure or pre-allocation; and Janin mightbe still orienting to this type of organization. This delay, however, provides opportunities for the</p></li><li><p>P. Margutti / Linguistics and Education 17 (2006) 313346 317</p><p>other pupils to supply the answer before Janin finally comes in (line 8). The example shows a casein which the question is addressed to a single student, but that is not how it is answered, owing tothe local management of the activities underway.</p><p>By contrast, the question in Fragment 4 below is left un-addressed. The teacher does notname any student in particular, and the nonverbal behavior which accompanies the delivery of thequestioning (see the gloss to lines 1 and 5) also seems to suggest that all the students are proposedhere as potential addressees of the question. Despite this, individual students present themselvesas potential answerers.2</p><p>Here the audience organizes the answering sequence following a precise procedure. Beforea specific student is selected and gives the answer (line 8), a number of students produce eitherverbal or gestural bids to answer (indicated by the graphic symbol ), initiating an insertedsequence in which the teacher is expected to make a selection, which is accomplished inline 7.</p><p>However, answers to questions that are non-addressed are not always preceded by bids. Forinstance, the question in the fragment below engenders a different organization in the production</p><p>2 The lines in which students propose themselves as potential next speakers are indicated in the transcript with thissymbol (), in lines 3, 4, and 6.</p></li><li><p>318 P. Margutti / Linguistics and Education 17 (2006) 313346</p><p>of answers: students provide choral answers after a single respondent anticipates the others inline 2.</p><p>In fragment 6 below, the answer is again produced right away and in unison, following anon-addressed question.</p><p>In both fragments the answer is provided without any selection procedure. In both fragments,but more neatly in fragment 6, the students organize themselves in responding groups whichperfectly time their production, giving choral answers.</p><p>As the examples above clearly show, the characterization of addressed and non-addressedquestions is rather broad and glosses over some crucial features in the question construction andin the interactional context (such as, for instance, the delay of the selected student in producingthe answer, as we have seen in example 3) and perhaps oversimplifies sequential consequencessuch as who is expected or entitled to answer and in which way this is to be done. Apparently,as emerges from the above examples, there is no direct relationship between addressed questionand individually produced answer nor between non-addressed question and collectively producedanswer. Furthermore, as fragments 4, 5 and 6 show, non-addressed questions seem to engender twomain types of answering patterns: choral answers and bids to answer (either verbal or non-verbal,such as hand-raising).</p><p>The fact that two different outcomes are possible after non-addressed questions is significant interms of the orderly progression of interaction. Students seem to recognize indications which lie inthe features of question construction, and which do not always coincide with the teachers explicitnaming of the selected student, when interpreting the specific requirements of the question. Itseems, in fact, that the rules participants follow in order to manage the unfolding of interactionin classroom instructional sequences, and particularly those which students adhere to in order toproduce the expected answer, are conveyed by the very construction of the question.</p></li><li><p>P. Margutti / Linguistics and Education 17 (2006) 313346 319</p><p>The analysis that follows focuses on questions which are not addressed to a specific student,and which yield either choral answers or individual bids to answer. From the way in which non-addressed questions are designed, students interpret whether individual or collective answers areexpected.</p><p>In particular, with reference to choral answers, we will find that the prior questioning turnswhich elicit them embody a sense of obviousness that ends up being conveyed in the answer aswell. Teachers use a variety of prosodic and syntactic formats and, more generally, features in theconstruction and deployment of questions (1) to display their assumptions as to whether or notthe students should know the correct answer and (2) to instruct them as to how and where themissing information should be identified and reconstructed in prior talk. Teachers seem to trustand rely on the students ability to recognize these conventions of question construction whichwill guide them towards the correct answer and its expected format.</p><p>Therefore, when looking at the two formats which the answers may take, a distinction canbe made between levels of recognizability the teacher accords to the expected answer. Somequestion formats instruct students precisely on the content of the answer which is embedded inthe talk and there for them to perceive, thus conveying a sense of obviousness in the question.Other formats, by contrast, characterize questions which have far less transparent answers and,thus, involve more perspicacious respondents. Questions of the first set seem more frequently toengender choral answers, while the other formats produce bids to answer.</p><p>The idea that a certain level of obviousness is intrinsic to some definite features of the design ofquestions is related to the in-unison aspect. The presence of...</p></li></ul>